fitness beyond aesthetics

By coach sarah rush

Someone recently asked me what the benefits of fitness are beyond aesthetics. I could probably answer that pretty quickly with a listicle like:

  1. Get stronger!
  2. Relieve stress!
  3. Make friends!
  4. Improve overall health!

But those articles already exist. Instead, I’m going to ask you, the reader, to tell me the benefits of fitness that go beyond–or beneath–aesthetics. Wait, that’s not how this usually works.Let’s back up a bit. Let’s start first with some pretty common advice for anyone trying to develop a life-long, sustainable habit: Know Your Why. The idea is that our chances for success – however we define that – improve if our actions are rooted in deeply held internal values rather than more fleeting or external reasons. Applied to fitness, it’s a pithy way to say that you should examine your underlying reasons for working out and let those propel you to action. As a lifelong athlete, knowing my why was fairly straightforward. I had to be very in touch with my underlying reasons for waking up at 4am and going to sleep at 8pm, training 3+ hours a day, overcoming injury, and having no free-time outside of school or work. If not, I may not have made it very far in any sport. As a coach, it is just as important to understand my athletes’ core motivation. When I started coaching, I was coaching rowers who also woke up at 4am, went to sleep at 8pm, trained 3+ hours a day… and so on… for many of the same reasons I did. Understanding their motivations was easy.Then, I transitioned to coaching crossfit. I now find myself training adults with diverse experience in sports and fitness, ranging from brand new to expert. For these members, there is no “team” to bind them together. No Game Day for which to train. No rivalry or opponent to overcome. It’s just an eclectic group of grown ups electing to show up and work hard for their own personal reasons in the midst of many other responsibilities and priorities. My ability to understand someone’s why proved much harder in this context. In part, that’s because the why actually is a lot more complicated than it is for, say, high school or college athletes. Alright, let’s return to that aesthetics piece.If you ask new members why they walked through the doors, aesthetics is usually somewhere in that answer. But while aesthetics brings many people into the gym, it’s not guaranteed to keep them coming back. That’s because aesthetic-driven motivation is in part a response to social pressures that are layered onto your authentic self rather than a response arising from within. And as an extrinsic motivator, the benefits are further removed — meaning, you exercise to obtain the reward of looking a certain way in the future. I don’t know about you, but that’s not guaranteed to get me out of bed at 4am.(Quick detour: Aesthetic goals also are often very easily supplanted by other drivers and act as moving targets that lead to a constant sense of failure. At their worst, aesthetic-driven goals can actually undermine the other benefits that we seek, especially when we fully internalize aesthetic goals into our sense of self-worth. Oops, maybe I should write a blog about this…)That doesn’t mean that part of your motivation can’t or shouldn’t be aesthetic. It’s probably one thing that everyone in the gym has in common to a degree. But at some point, you may find that you outgrow it to a degree and that your reasons for showing up need a bit more refinement and attention to detail. Some people organically uncover or establish this deeper why. Their goals move from the desire to “look good” to a curiosity about what their body can do or a love of the community or an appreciation of their new-found energy in daily activities. Other people have to search intentionally for those deeper motivators. Maybe you have made progress toward your aesthetic goals, and it still feels very rewarding. Or maybe you’re a highly disciplined person who sticks to a fitness routine even when your heart’s not in it. Even if you are achieving those more extrinsic goals, the benefits of knowing your why apply to you too. Trust me, there is a big difference in the member who has examined their why and holds it close, and the member who is just going through the motions. I can see the difference in your eyes when you’re 9 rounds into a 10-round workout, and you can probably hear it in the thoughts running through your head. Knowing our why can keep us coming back to some sort of fitness routine even when the circumstances under which we originally joined change. Connecting our health and fitness habits to that core purpose helps us weather adversity and protects us against the more damaging effects of the fitness world. It also gives us a more sturdy frame of reference for success when it’s tempting to compare our journeys to others or veer off course. Wait, those sound like benefits! That must mean it’s finally time to return to the original question (the one that you’re supposed to answer): What are the benefits of fitness beyond aesthetics? The benefit is that you fulfill your why. That’s it! Whatever your why, you’ve figured out that it has to be satisfied, in part or in whole, through a sustained fitness regimen. By sustaining one, you honor that little flame inside you that is always burning. And the fulfillment you get in knowing you showed up for yourself is powerful. If you’ve never sought out your why – or if its been awhile since you checked in – take some time to look inward. There are many resources out there that identify whys, and some of them may resonate with you. Other answers may be very unique and personal to you. Overall, your why is likely multi-dimensional, touching on various depths and dimensions. To get your introspective juices flowing, an easy place to start is the Sickness-Wellness-Fitness Continuum taught at the Crossfit Level 1 Coaching Seminar. The concept defines health on a spectrum that moves from sickness to wellness to fitness and surmises that each individual exists somewhere on that spectrum. In this view, fitness is the part of health that is within our control. Simple and linear.If you want a more comprehensive approach, check out the Precision Nutrition “Deep Health” model with six dimensions of health: relational, existential, mental, physical, emotional, and environmental. This gets at the tangled complexities of fitness in a way that may help you uncover your own reasons.Once you Know Your Why, write it down and remind yourself of it often. And don’t be afraid to update it!